Just this morning, my wife shared a story with me from NPR. A Baptist church in Paducah, Kentucky hosted a dinner recently in which a host of guns were auctioned off. The Point of the event? To quote the speaker, “to reach the people where they are.” This gun toting (and cocking) preacher mingled stirring remarks about the second amendment with political jabs and ultimately, the gospel… or something close to it.
As evangelicalism turned away from its Reformed, Calvinistic roots at the turn of the twentieth century, it was steadily turning toward the promise of efficiency. The revivalism that had become so widespread on the American frontier throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century had taught a seemingly important lesson to American evangelicals hoping to see their nation converted to Christ: If you supply enough rousing music, feature a dynamic speaker who marries flash with some substance, and hold a public invitation just long enough… you’ll have more converts. Over the course of the twentieth century, with the rise of industrialism and commercialism, the revivalist approach was again married to growing trends in advertising and entertainment. Many in evangelical churches adopted forms of marketing and commercialism in order to attract people to their churches in hopes that they might hear the gospel and be saved.
Now, what all of these movements have in common is a good and noble goal- to see people saved. But unless we’ve adopted some sort of baptized utilitarianism, we know that noble ends do not always justify all means.
Perhaps we’ve moved past the “seeker-sensitive” movement of the early nineties, but we still exhibit forms of “bait and switch” tactics in our attempts to reach our communities with the gospel. From gun auctions to free dinners to any number of other activities, we promise our communities a “great time,” often using words like, “free food,” “games,” and “activities for all ages.” Now this is all good and seems harmless until the people are there. Suddenly the scrim is dropped and there’s a surprise “mini worship service,” complete with worship music and a sermon? The unsuspecting people are duped into listening to an evangelistic appeal and thank God some are actually convicted and repent and trust in the gospel for salvation. Still others, wooed by the free food, nice people, and rousing music are emotionally drawn to the message, but the conviction of the Spirit is not there. They move forward during the “altar call,” repeat a prayer with an “altar counselor,” and may even agree to be baptized… but salvation has not come to this house and time will prove it.
What’s the difference? What’s the defining mark between those whom the gospel truly penetrated and those whose heart was the hard or thorny soil? Subtract all of the entertainment, the rousing music, the emotional appeals… the “bait,” and you’re left with nothing but the gospel. The only thing that can be attributed to the bait is attracting more people with the promises of food, entertainment, and anything else while to the gospel, we attribute the power to convict and save those who were truly converted. The power isn’t in the bait, the power is in the gospel and the power of the gospel will work, regardless of the offering of bait.
According to popular preacher and leadership guru, Craig Groeschel, a church’s mentality ought to be,
“We will do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ. To reach people no one is reaching, we’ll have to do things no one is doing.”
Good news, Craig, you don’t have to think that hard! You don’t have to be clever enough to “do things no one else is doing…” in fact, the one thing you ought to be doing is the same thing the the Church has been called to do for nearly 2,000 years, “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Sure, preaching the Word isn’t “sexy;” it’s not flashy or appealing to modern sensibilities or marketing ploys, but it’s exactly what God has commanded us to do, and it is the only source for the power and presence of the Spirit in our churches.
Paul, under modern schemes such as Groeschel’s, might have been tempted to turn to any number of things in order to reach those to whom he was preaching. He might have very well embraced the “bait and switch” mentality and given into the social whims and passion of his day. But Paul exemplifies and commands us to do the exact opposite:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.- 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (ESV)
The power of God is the power of the Word, namely the Word of the cross. And if modern evangelicalism says that’s “foolish,” or “naive,” then they have not, “evolved with the times,” they have simply embraced the logic of the world.
No matter how much flash, how much entertainment, how much “fun,” we might employ to trap people into hearing the gospel; absolutely nothing of salvation can be attributed to such gimmicks, but all glory and honor goes to God and to the Holy Spirit who works by the right preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the Sacraments.
Don’t deny the power of the gospel or the Holy Spirit himself by buying into the “bait and switch mentality.” Trust in the power of God through the gospel, remembering Paul’s words:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.-Romans 1:16 (ESV)